Suspended Animation #203
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has long been known to be a huge fan of Superman. Contrary to urban myth, Superman references do not appear in every episode of Seinfeld but are prominent in many of them.
American Express began partnering with Seinfeld in 1992 in an effort to re-brand itself away from the perception that it was just for older, wealthy consumers. Seinfeld attracted a younger, “hipper” demographic without alienating existing cardholders.
AmEx was looking for a commercial to air during the January 1998 Superbowl Game that would attract some attention. Seinfeld pitched the idea of appearing with Superman and arranged for a lunch with an executive at Warner Brothers in October 1997 hoping his celebrity status would seal a deal.
Filming began in November for a thirty second and sixty second version of the commercial. The animation of the Superman character was done by the Warner Bros. Classic Animation division. Seinfeld specifically asked that the hero be drawn in the classic style of artist Curt Swan who was the premier comic book artist on the character from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The live-action was shot on pin-registered 35mm film on the set used for the Lois and Clark television series on the Warner Bros. lot. Seinfeld rehearsed his blocking with actor Patrick Warburton who played the role of David Puddy, Elaine’s boyfriend, on the sitcom and would provide the voice for Superman.
Creating the animation and compositing with the live action took several weeks. Kathleen Helppie, a vice-president at Warner Bros. said that 56 artists created over 12,000 hand drawings of Superman on paper. The animation included several levels of effects animation including not just the regular tones but half-tones, highlights, special effects and more.
“Each of those levels was hand-drawn for each frame of live-action film,” said Helppie. “You don’t necessarily see each level in the final composite but they are all there. Portions of the commercials had as many as twenty-five levels of digital compositing.”
More than a thousand individual photos from the live action were generated as backgrounds for the hand drawn elements. Warners also created mattes for live-action cars, props and people that are located between Superman and the camera “allowing us to put Superman behind particular objects like a car,” added Helppie.
The live-action film and individual drawings were scanned into computer, composited and digitally painted. All painting and compositing was done using various modules of ToonBoom’s USAnimation software.
The commercial done by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in New York ran during the football playoff games on Sunday on NBC and Fox in early January and then later that month during the Super Bowl XXXII telecast. A 60-second spot during the game cost $2.6 million. Seinfeld wrote his AmEx commercials with Chris Mitton, Christian Charles and Dave Laden.
(Seinfeld and an animated Superman walking down a city block in the middle of a conversation.)
Superman: I mean, it’s not like I asked to be famous.
Seinfeld: Yeah, well it’s the price you pay.
Superman: You sign a lot of autographs?
Seinfeld: Oh, yeah. You?
Superman: Some. They ask me to bend stuff a lot.
Seinfeld: I can see that.
(Superman suddenly stops and looks off in the distance.)
Superman: It’s Lois. She’s in trouble.
Seinfeld: Did you look through that building?
Superman: Well, kind of. It’s glass.
Lois: Superman. I’ve forgotten my wallet.
(Superman pats the side of his trunks where pockets might be.)
Superman: I can’t carry money in this. I’m powerless.
Seinfeld: I’m not.
(Seinfeld starts spinning. It was shot using green screen and augmented with some digital motion blur work.)
Old Man in store: What’s with the spinning?
Superman: He idolizes me. It’s embarrassing.
(Seinfeld stops and displays his AmEx card and uses it to pay for the groceries.)
Lois (to Seinfeld): My hero!
(Seinfeld and Superman step outside and see a crowd looking skyward and they do so as well.)
Seinfeld: What’s that?
Man: It’s a huge comet hurtling perilously toward Earth. We’re doomed!
Seinfeld (to Superman): I think you better get this one.
(Before he can fly off, Superman is approached by a man with a sheepish expression and holding a bar of iron.)
Man: Wait! Could ya? It’s for my kid.
(Superman and Seinfeld look at each other and smile.)
Lois Lane was actress Audrey Kissel, who played George Costanza’s girlfriend Tara in episode 160 of Seinfeld aired October 1997, “The Blood.”
“This is an incredible collaboration between a superhero, a superbrand and a television superstar,” said Joel Ehrlich, senior vice president of Advertising and Promotion for DC Comics and Warner Bros. Consumer Products. “The humor, animation and live-action featured in the commercial were greatly enhanced through a collaboration of the talented teams at Warner Bros. Animation and American Express’ advertising agency, Oglivy & Mather.”John Hayes, executive vice president of Global Advertising for American Express, stated, “Trust and security are two of the American Express brand’s most powerful attributes. Featuring Jerry Seinfeld with an American Express card that ‘saves the day’ for him and Superman is a light-hearted way to break through commercial clutter and reinforce the value of the card for everyday use.”
DC Comics Executive editor Mike Carlin joked, “This is truly an example of the mutual admiration society getting together. Clark Kent has been a big fan of Jerry Seinfeld since seeing him perform at the Metropolis Comedy Club. He even has a Seinfeld magnet on his refrigerator!”
Seinfeld was a huge fan of Jack Larson’s portrayal of Jimmy Olsen so asked for him to do a cameo and got an autographed photo. He spent time with Larson watching the Superman episode Panic in the Sky, a 1953 episode where Superman rams a giant asteroid on a collision course with earth.
The original cameo had Larson encountering Seinfeld and Superman walking down the street. Larson holding a copy of a newspaper looks up and says “Hi, pal!” in reference to the comic book Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. However, after several different takes, it just didn’t look right.
They took the footage of Larson looking up, removed Superman and Seinfeld from the scene and added the shadow of the approaching comet and the Daily Planet background. The idea of using the comet came from the television episode Seinfeld watched with Larson.
The last episode of Seinfeld aired in May 1998, roughly four months after the advertisement first aired on television but Seinfeld’s relationship in promoting AmEx continued for many more years.
Next Week: The Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman: The Webisodes – Part 2